How to effectively communicate with a horse.


As I am headed to Oklahoma for my clinic, I am thinking about how I can teach the idea of communicating with a horse better, and I can’t help but think that it is just like teaching kids to read.  We don’t expect kids to know how to read within minutes, or expect that if a child can recognize one word it means they recognize all words… we do however, expect that if they start to read that they will stutter and have to sound everything out and we give them time.  We use lots repetition and we seem to keep anger at bay.  However with our horses, whom we cannot explain what we are doing, we expect them to “know” what we want at all times! We say to ourselves, “Well, shoot, I have taught them to go over a tarp – why are they not going into the creek?”  And then we expect that if they do it once, they should continue to do it (for example lowering the head…”But Brandi he did drop his head but it popped right back up!”)  We want them not to ever have any emotions, get scared, get excited or just have a bad day, in fact, we want robots that never mess up and never misunderstand us!  The funny part is the “spirit” of the horse is what draws us to them and heals our hearts.  The essence of the horse is the most amazing and wonderful gift from God.  I want to teach people how to embrace the spirit of the horse while gaining control through healthy communication and having understanding, respect and love for each other. So, how do we make that happen?

In order to communicate with a horse we first must understand how a horse learns.  All trainers, clinicians, and horseman can agree… horses learn what we want by asking them to do something and releasing or rewarding them the second they do what we are asking of them.  Releasing is a key ingredient in learning how to talk to a horse; the release of pressure can come from so many ways.  It can come from body position, from release of lead rope, or rein, or tapping from a dressage whip or even energy that we give them.  But the very second you release that pressure they learn to continue that behavior.  This can be a good thing and a bad thing for a horse.  Why? Once we gain “feeling” and we are good with our hands, seat, legs, and body pressure this allows us to teach them ANYTHING!  However as we are learning how to control our hands and seat and legs and our bodies we end up sending them lots of signals that we didn’t mean, or we released pressure so many times on things we didn’t want. The best example I can give you, and it happens to almost every person when learning, is when a new rider will make a horse throw/toss his head by adding pressure — and then the horse throws his head, pulling the reins out of the rider’s hands – which then teaches the horse to toss his head.  Later, when we start to use our hands better we have to go back and fix it.  This can be a very hard part of learning how to ride a horse or learning to communicate properly.  That’s where horses get a bad reputation and people get hurt and then fear starts to set in and yes it gets a little ugly after that!

The second part is to understand “horses” in our head, or gain the knowledge and then start getting our bodies, or the “muscle memory”, to communicate correctly to the horse.  That is what I push in my clinics… I was a trainer for the past 10 years and kept wondering why I could teach people at a clinic to get better in such a short period of time but I could have a client with me for 6 months as a trainer and start to feel like I was not going to ever get their bodies to work right. Working for 1 hour a day for 1-3 days a week at most with someone just doesn’t get a change quick enough in a person’s body so that they can change their horse and the rider can feel safe.  Whereas with the clinics I get 8 hours a day for 4 days to gain the muscle memory that goes along with the knowledge and then my riders can really start talking to their horse and pretty soon the horse is changing as well and they are on their way to obtaining their goals.

Now that we know that it will take pressure and a reward, and that while we gain the knowledge we will have to get some good muscle memory so that we can talk to a horse correctly, let’s take a look at the horse and what does what….

Back to kids and reading, think back to the first time you saw the alphabet – it must have looked scary!  Looking at 26 letters, then finding out that each letter has different sounds it can make, and then finding out that putting two or more sounds together can also change things – that’s a lot to take in. That is the way horsemanship looks to us riders… what body part does what… in what direction do we move it and at what speed and how do we tell it to do those things and now put more than one body part together with another body part and make a maneuver and and and and… and shucks I just want the horse to go straight!!!  There is a lot to all of this and depending on what discipline you choose it can change what you need to know… again it is hard.  But if the kindergarten teacher looks at her students and says, “Sorry kids, I know this is hard and scary and, well, you don’t really need to learn to read. Just kinda fake it and see if you can get into college and see if someday you can get a job and just wing it because I don’t want you to have to struggle learning something so hard….” Would that be good to say to our kids?  Should our kids not go to a teacher to learn? Should we just tell them to figure this reading thing out on their own? No! All of that seems crazy, yet we do that exact same thing as new horse owners.  It is only after we have a problem or after we get hurt that we see the importance of learning to communicate and learn what horsemanship really looks like.  Don’t worry and for sure do not take it personally — EVERYONE does it! And it is OK!  Actually, that is how my dad became “John Lyons”… he was in his late 20’s or early 30’s and he thought, man I want to be a cowboy, so he went and got a horse. Then he thought, man I want to own a cattle ranch and be a real cowboy, and then he became very poor! No, it really was just about like that – after ranching for a while, he got into showing and then realized that he needed to learn about real horsemanship. He really worked hard at figuring out how to be the best, and then realized that not only did he have a knack for it – he wanted to give people the help he wished he had starting out. He learned everything he could, in fact he still is learning…. It is an art that never stops!  Everyone starts at the beginning with horses, we are all the same.

Ok looking at the horse…. And thinking about our language… let me explain how I start teaching someone to start working with their horse’s body.  I am going to give you an analogy of our language and a game show… If you watch the TV show Wheel of Fortune you will see that the first consonants that are asked for are R S T L N and vowels are so important to words that they make you “buy” them. Referring to a horse, forward motion is like those vowels – it is so important it’s worth buying. If you cannot ask the horse to go forward it will be unbelievably hard or even impossible to get them to go into the correct lead or get into a trailer or cross a creek… Everything in training starts with a go forward cue.

Controlling the horse’s hip or back feet or tail hair (as my dad calls it)is as important to training as the letters R S T L N… if you do not have control of this section of the horse you will NOT be able to stop them from running away, or even just stop, or go straight, or slow down, or not spook, or any other problem, or do the higher level maneuvers like spins, sliding stops, canter pirouette, a western pleasure lope, or or or…! The hips are the most used body part and the save our butts from many problems!  Why do you think that every single clinician, doesn’t matter their method or theories, starts with a “one rein stop” or a “disengaging the hip” exercise… and they do this from the ground and then the back!  It is important on every level with every horse with every discipline no matter the style of training!  Seems to me like everybody should know how to move those back feet in every direction at every speed and with little to no fight!

The next most used consonants are B M and P, and those letters are like your shoulder control in a horse.  The shoulders, or the front feet, help us control directional cues, speed, and emotions.   They can also help with higher levels of riding like picking up the correct lead, going into a lope transition without the horse tossing his head or leaping up with the front end.  Shoulder control can also help us get a slower, more comfortable trot, a spin or turn around, and they help our stop if our horse likes to throw his front feet into the ground and slam our tummies into the saddle horn.  Controlling our horse’s shoulder can also help us when our horse keeps going into a trot on the trail but we want them to walk -many horses and owners have this problem and it is fairly simple to handle.  Again, controlling this part of the body is very important… there are so many exercises out there on learning how to get them to move in every direction and at every speed.  By learning how to move the front end around, you’ll feel so much more under control and have such a greater understanding of how your horse’s body works.

Getting back to school and reading again – Our teachers move on to conjunction words, and now we are teaching our kids to bring two or more parts of the sentence/thoughts together.   Well, our horse’s neck is our conjunction… if and when we soften the neck we can then start bringing our back feet and our front feet together and making maneuvers!  This is a vital step in wanting the horse to do more…

Punctuation in a paragraph can either make someone look educated or make them look uneducated, so for our lesson today, punctuation on a horse is their mouth or nose or head.  If it looks soft and under control like a nice reining horse they just look and feel so safe.  If the horse is throwing his head around or has his head way up in the air or sticking out way in front of them they do not “look” like they are under control.   We want to learn how to soften and gain control of the mouth!

In my clinics we focus on the horse’s body and learn how to effectively communicate with each body part you need in order to do the discipline you’ve chosen and reach your goals. There is a specific way of learning and teaching that makes sense to a horse, and I will help you understand how to do that. You’ll also gain the muscle memory that you need in order to communicate properly to your horse.  You can have all the knowledge in your head but until your hands learn to “feel” the body parts you will struggle with “talking” to your horse.  Once you gain the “feel” and understanding of what does what and how you get it you then can go on to doing anything you want with your horse!

Horses are amazing, and we as the teachers  just have to sit back and teach them all of our letters and what they mean and what they say when we put them together.  We get to decide what cue means what and we do not have to be “right” — we just have to be consistent.  Once you own a horse and you both have gone through the process of learning to read each other, it is then up to you to write your own story of what you want from your horse.  You get to go on and write, design, and master your own book!  You get to put your own cues in and decide what they mean to you!  To me this is absolutely the coolest part of owning a horse – that moment when you have your own personal language and you are totally in harmony, and nobody can disrupt it.  It is exactly like our relationship with Christ – we get to have our own personal relationship and we should not judge or try to tell anyone else what they should or should not be doing. Like I said before, the essence of the horse is the most amazing and wonderful gift from God. So be slow to anger and quick to laugh and you can do anything with a horse!

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